from Maureen Lawlor
There are no typical days in a classroom. The combination of student personalities, the surroundings and even the weather gives each day a different flavor. I teach in a setting that is not so typical and I teach students who do not fit the mainstream description of what constitutes a student but nonetheless I am a teacher and they are my pupils.
I can describe to you a day. All I ask is that you use your imagination to picture a teacher and a classroom of students.
It's a long walk to the classroom. Through door after door and up and down short staircases of metal steps. It's a very old building. When I get to my room I notice the floors have been waxed and the chalkboard washed. A fellow teacher offers to move the piles of chairs from the corners to their rightful places. I accept with thanks. As I sort through my totebag of papers, notepads, handouts and folder in bounds my first student.
"Moe!", I smile and extend my hand.
He smiles and responds, "Hey Teach, what did you bring for us today?" and as Moe always does, he pokes a hand into my totebag.
"Not until the others get here," I admonish and again he grins because he hears this every week from me.
It isn't long before four other students come in and I greet them all by name and in return I get smiles and handshakes. They take seats, talk among themselves and occasionally wave and call a greeting to other students passing our classroom. I take a moment to assess their mood today. Sometimes, make that oftentimes, that is the gauge I use to decide what is going to go on that day. Kevin seems very, very sad and quiet. He is usually sad, smiles rarely and the word I get from other students is that he is a target of teasing and ridicule. I really didn't think he'd stick with the class but he does. I hopefully wonder if it is the supportive environment I try to create in this room. Tommy is all business and sits right down and opens a notebook and starts to write. He almost immediately gets up and leaves and I am sure he is going to the library to borrow the thickest dictionary he can find. I'm right and when he returns he gives me a smile and sits again to work. Minor disruption as Brian races into the classroom.
"Sorry I'm late," he pants, "I'm really sorry and jeeze I just washed my hands so they're all wet" as he quickly wipes them on his pants and then extends a hand and a sheepish smile.
"OK! OK! Now please settle down," I call out over the increasing volume.
"Ah, Bobby won't be here," announces Moe, "He's in trouble for mouthing off."
"That's too bad," I say and now I think I know why Kevin is so down. Bobby seems to be the one buddy he has. I look at Kevin but he has his head on his desk.
I decide it's time to get to work and take care of handing out supplies. I'm lucky there is still some budget money left even in November so I pass out colored folders, blue ink pens, pencils and pads of lined paper.
"Wow this is like Christmas," said Eddie who I think has every folder I've given him stacked on his desk and every pen sticking out of his shirt pocket.
Again, like every time, I'm struck how delighted they are to receive simple school supplies. None of them have much money for these things.
I remember an important announcement. "Guys, the dictionaries are on order so as soon as they come in I'll get them right to you."
A chorus of "All right!" "Yes" and a "Way to go Teach" echoes in the room.
"OK, OK. Shush and lets get to work."
Moe wants one more shot at center stage by asking if anyone has seen the TV special on Nostradamus and without waiting for an answer begins to describe what he saw. I let him go on for a minute because Moe needs to get stuff out sometimes so he can begin to concentrate on his work or reading. Brian is not interested and tells Moe that stuff is weird which gets Moe even more animated.
"Time out" I say loudly and firmly. "Moe, thanks for the information and you and Brian can continue discussing your philosophical differences some other time."
Tommy now asks for my help and I go to his desk. He's trying very hard to complete a workbook of reading comprehension and is a bit stuck on some material.
"I'm really trying to increase my attention span too," he says to me. He looks so serious with wide eyes and a smile that reveals some missing front teeth. "I think I'm doing better." I know he is asking for reassurance and I give it to him. He is working hard and he's one of the one's who I know is most eager for his very own dictionary.
The others seem to be in a mood to chat and discuss so I take their cue.
"What is the most memorable book you have ever read?"
They all lean back in their chairs, silent--for the moment--and thinking.
"I'd rather read poetry," announces Moe and he stands and recites, "Do not go gently into that dark night..."
"Good, Moe, thank you." He'll continue and recite for an hour if I let him but he grins at me and sits.
"I like "Little Women", Kevin said softly and I swiftly glare at a couple of students to squelch the comments I anticipate. The potential loudmouths look down at their shoes and do not say a word.
"That's a wonderful story of family life and there are good lessons about knowing what is really important to you and about being true to yourself," I replied as I gave Kevin a smile he didn't see because his head was back down on the desk.
"What about you, Teach?" Brian asked, "What's your favorite book."
"East of Eden" by John Steinbeck. He's the first author I read who I truly paints pictures with words."
"Wow that's deep," Brian seemed impressed or wanted to seemingly impress me. Some of each I thought.
We all talked some more about favorite books while Tommy kept working in the corner. Moe got tired of the discussion and began copying some poems from a library book. A brief interruption just before the loudspeaker's disembodied voice announced the end of session by a student from another class asking, rather pleading, for a pencil signaled break time for my class.
I gathered my belongings as my students milled around me asking me to bring more folders, more pens, more handouts on the internet, more spelling materials and more books of any size, shape or description. Brian hung back and shyly asked if I could find him a copy of "East of Eden". "I want to read something that, you know, like you said, paints pictures with words." I promised I'd try. Kevin came back and reminded me that Bobby was still looking for a book on American Sign Language so he could communicate with his aunt and cousin. Again, another promise that I'd try. Eddie wanted to know if I could get them some Spanish/English dictionaries. I'll give it my best shot. "I know you will Teach," said Eddie, "You take care of us."
They are all loathe to leave the classroom.
It's no wonder.
This is a classroom in a Maximum Security prison. My students are inmates who at one time had a decision to make, made the worst possible one and now they are paying for their crimes.
Now I did not set out to mislead you the reader. Did you feel some sympathy for Kevin who gets picked on? Some amusement and exasperation at Moe's carrying on? A sense of "good for you" hearing about Tommy's tenacity? Smile at Eddie's thoughtful complement that I "take care of them"? Curiosity at what Bobby did to get in trouble? And some hope that Brian would read "East of Eden" and develop a hunger for good literature? Yes you did. As I said at the outset, I am a teacher in a not so typical teaching setting. But I do this for all the Brian's, Kevin's, Bobby's, Tommy's, Moe's and Eddie's who could be hanging out in the yard, smoking, playing basketball, sitting idle on a cement bench or planning their next scam but instead are sitting in a classroom. Studying. Discussing. Trying. Trying to do something positive in their negative world of bricks and bars. The trying is lots harder for them than for me so if they can do it then so can I.
See you tomorrow guys.
Maureen A. Lawlor, MA Director, Basic Literacy Program RI Adult Correctional Institutions Cranston, RI 02920